I was not feeling great about my visit to the San Francisco Labor Chorus. For one thing, I was late. I had spent so much time talking to Julene, I suddenly realised I had not very much time to get there on a very wandery 43 bus which roamed the San Francisco Hills, delightful on a day when I wasn’t in a hurry. I dashed around the campus of the college trying to find room 214 and was full of excuses and embarassment for being 15 minutes late. I flew through the door to discover – a potluck. A party! As the day after International Workers Day on 1 May, there was a celebration. I fill my plate and we sing The Internationale (and guess who is the only one who doesn’t know it, oh the shame.)
Chorus member Larry, gets up and tells us about the origins of May Day, how it evolved around the world. There was a discussion about what marches there had been in the Bay area. Again to my shame I had seen a parade on Market Street on 1 May but not connected the two. I did not make this fact known to the chorus.
We warm up. They have a gig on Saturday and Pat, the Musical Director and pianist wants to run through all the numbers.
Pat: Would you like to stand up?
Chorus member: No thanks
Pat takes no offense and they remain seated. They begin singing. It’s wonderful. It’s powerful, moving stuff. They sing in four parts. Like several of the choruses I have come across they have acknowledged that to find older male tenors is almost an impossibility whereas women’s voices have dropped considerably by this time. So the tenor section is mixed men and women.
Pat is a wild, passionate conductor. Just as she accepts comment from the chorus, she gives comment back:
Pat: So I’m singing: “what’s a union worth?” and I’m getting mnyah mnyah mnyah. I need to get something back! Altos, join the sopranos on that please.”
The choir has been going about 15 years. They are an old choir because they got old in the choir and the politics are important to them. Someone tells me later that if someone doesn’t show up, they get phoned, “Where are you, what’s wrong, we miss you?”
There seem to be a lot of New York voices. It turns out two of them are “red diaper ” babies (parents who were communists). It is quite simply the most democratic chorus I have experienced ever. There is real ownership of the chorus and throughout the rehearsal people make suggestions which are acted on or at the very least, discussed.
We break up for the night. But not without the song they always, always sing which just happens to be one of my favourite songs in the whole world. Pat pounds it out on the keyboard and we sing our way though at least 6 verses:
Irene… good night…….. Irene…….. good night
Good night Irene, Good night Irene, I’ll see you in my dreams.
And then a ride home with some of the group members and a very kind man who drives us all over San Francisco, thus avoiding the 43 bus. Perfect end to a perfect day.